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What is the Urban Development Boundary?

October 19, 2012

And Why You Should Care

When you fly into MIA from the west, you are looking down on miles and miles of Everglades with no sign of human habitation, and then suddenly you are over a densely populated urban area.  The transition is like night and day, and the reason is something called the Urban Development Boundary (or UDB).  The UDB is the line that keeps development from intruding further into the Everglades and coastal wetlands.

The main reason I’m writing about this now is that the UDB is the subject of one of the proposed changes in the Miami-Dade charter that is being voted upon in the November election.  At issue is incorporating into the county’s charter the current county law requiring a two-thirds majority to move the UDB to allow development in lands that are now undeveloped or agricultural.  This is actually one of those better-half-a-loaf-than-none measures, since a three-fourths majority would be preferable, but it does offer some more protection than a simple majority.

To be honest, I had never heard of the UDB until I started following Eye on Miami’s posts on the subject.   (The New York Times considered it worth a feature article back in 2007.)   But I quickly became convinced of the importance of this issue to the future of our community.

First a little background and geography lesson:  On a conventional map, Florida looks like a broad peninsula over a hundred miles wide.  But when you see it in a satellite image, you realize that what we think of as South Florida is really just a narrow finger of land along the Atlantic no more than 10 – 15 miles across.  We live where we do because a thin limestone ridge parallel to the coast lifts the land a few feet above the ocean on the east and the Everglades on the west.  In the hundred years or so since Miami and other communities were established, developers have pushed settlement westward into the Everglades by landfill and swamp drainage, which has resulted in a lowered and distressed water table (which we all depend on) and deterioration of the Everglades ecosystem as the urban sprawl has expanded.  The sprawl has in turn created the traffic nightmare that area commuters experience daily.

Back in the 1970s, the first efforts to contain the sprawl were embodied in a Land Use Plan for Miami-Dade, and in 1983 the UDB first appeared as a specific line on the map.  [See this fascinating, if slightly wonkish, legal summary here.]  However, the UDB has been under constant assault by real estate developers and rock miners ever since, and between 1976 and 2007, some 52 square miles—an area more than twice the size of Manhattan—have been added to the land inside the UDB available for development.  [Note:  Those rectangular ponds on the fringes of the Everglades that you see in the satellite images are former rock mines that have filled with water from the Biscayne aquifer.]

The pressure is incessant.  Earlier this year, the Ferro Investment Group submitted an application to expand the UDB to include 10 acres in West Kendall and rezone the parcel from agricultural to commercial.  Approval would mean an adjacent and larger agricultural parcel would be surrounded by commercial development on three sides and therefore ripe for picking on the next round.  Development doesn’t just mean environmental degradation—it also means that taxpayers pick up the tab for the infrastructure that the county must provide to support the development.

At stake are huge sums of money, and therefore it is a political issue, though perhaps because it doesn’t involve sex or drugs, it isn’t one that get a lot of attention from the general public.  But the developer forces, like the Latin Builders Association, which want to put up new big-box stores, strip malls, and subdivisions on vacant lands, contribute heavily to friendly county commissioners.  Lynda Bell is the most shameless among what Eye on Miami calls the “unreformable majority” who reliably vote to support their interests.  (There are also a few Good Guys like Dennis Moss and Sally Heyman who are trying to hold the line.)

The anti-environmental Scott administration in Tallahassee has made local resistance to moving the line even more tenuous.  As Eye on Miami put it:  Until the Republican-led Florida legislature gutted the Growth Management Act this spring, approved by incurious, indifferent Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Community Affairs provided pressure against local county government from doing what powerful lobbyist/law firms and their speculator clients wanted: strip malls, commercial centers, and platted subdivisions wherever and whenever they could find bank financing.   The local state senator who has been most active in gutting this environmental protection is Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Broward), who introduced a bill in May that would make it easier to move the UDB (which, fortunately, failed).  You know Bogdanoff—she’s the one surrounded by those adorable kiddies in her campaign commercials.  You’d never know from her ads that she is also the leading shill for the Genting gambling behemoth behind the push for megacasinos in South Florida.

Long story short:  The measure now on the November ballot is a slender reed in the battle against the ongoing destruction of the Everglades, but it’s one of the few we have.  Vote YES on this one.

And vote for Maria Sachs against Ellyn Bogdanoff.

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